How to Navigate Grief in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Written by Maria Vassiliou

This blog was first published on the World Economic Forum website on January 31, 2022.

  • COVID-19 has caused approximately 5 million deaths so far worldwide, leaving many grieving the loss of a loved one.
  • Organizations that don’t support grieving staff are experiencing losses in productivity, employee engagement and retention rates.
  • A compassionate company culture that support employees can help build a post-pandemic recovery.

Two years ago, our relatively stable lives and structures were upended by the pandemic. We collectively went through incredible amounts of grief and pain, and we have had limited opportunities to process it all over the last two years.

As a result, all of that grief is locked up inside the offices, teams, and workplaces of every organization across the country, and maybe even around the world. That build-up of grief is leading to burnout, endless fatigue, loss of focus, and changes in employee engagement – all of which are negatively impacting companies and organizations. The Great Resignation, which took place throughout the pandemic, is a prime example.

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Employees resigned in huge numbers over the last year as a result of burnout, endless stress, and the dramatic blurring of lines separating work and personal life. These factors caused many to deeply contemplate the values they want to maintain in their lives, and how they want to live and work moving forward.

​​Workplace culture played a crucial role in their choice to resign. Employees operating in toxic work environments, or in environments in which they felt uncared for contributed to larger numbers of employees resigning.

How many people have lost someone to COVID-19?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 5 million deaths so far worldwide due to COVID-19. With these deaths, we often forget about those who are left behind to grieve. To quantify just how many people are impacted – there are roughly nine close family members who are left to grieve following one COVID-19 death.

When we look at the US, there have been roughly ​​868,000 deaths due to COVID-19. This translates to 7,812,000 close family members who are grieving the death of a loved one – this does not include close friends and non-blood relatives. This figure also does not include those who are grieving the loss of celebrations and other forms of connection.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

As of December 2021, there were approximately 157 million workers in the US. If we assume that all 7,812,000 people who are grieving are workers, that implies that 4.5% of all employees in the US have been grieving the loss of a close family member or loved one. As stated above, the lines between home and work are so blurred right now, that it is virtually impossible for this grief to not have an impact on productivity.

Toxic work environments are driving the Great Resignation

As of December 2020, total GDP in the US – the universally accepted measure of productivity – was $20.94 trillion. All else being equal, if 4.5% of workers have had their productivity compromised as a result of their grief, that means that up to $942 billion of productivity and business growth has been directly affectedby grief.

Data published by MIT Sloan in January 2022 indicated that a toxic workplace was far and away – by nearly three times – a leading contributor to the Great Resignation. Every single day, millions of employees are working in these unhealthy and toxic work environments. Overlaid onto this are the aforementioned grief statistics. Millions of workers are grieving, while also managing the stressors that come from a toxic work environment.

Top predictors of attrition during the Great Resignation. The authors analyzed the impact of more than 170 cultural topics on employee attrition in Culture 500 companies from April through September 2021. These five topics were the leading predictors of attrition. Each bar indicates the level of importance of each topic for attrition relative to employee compensation. A toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation. Source: MIT Sloan.
Top predictors of attrition during the Great Resignation. The authors analyzed the impact of more than 170 cultural topics on employee attrition in Culture 500 companies from April through September 2021. These five topics were the leading predictors of attrition. Each bar indicates the level of importance of each topic for attrition relative to employee compensation. A toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation. Source: MIT Sloan.

These toxic work environments leave employees feeling uncared for, harassed and discriminated against. All these factors have led to their decision to resign, which leads to immense losses for employers. These losses have been widely cited across a number of studies as losses in productivity, employee engagement, decreased retention of staff, and the associated costs of labour replacement – particularly poignant in a labour market that is experiencing a skills and job shortage rarely seen before.

The value of building a compassionate company culture

To quote Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Data shows that investing in the retention of disengaged staff is far more cost-effective in the long-term than the cost to retrain and replace workers. According to Gallup, it costs a company “$9,000 a year to keep each disengaged worker.” This short-term loss has long-term benefits when we learn that it “requires one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary” to replace them. This means that if a worker’s annual salary is $50,000, it could cost employers “between $25,000 and $100,000 to replace them,” instead of working to retain and reengage.

Image: Limeade Institute.

It is more cost-effective to reengage employees and create a space that fosters safety, compassion and the opportunity for vulnerability. This will help to retain their talent, as well as increasing recruitment opportunities for the future. For example, when employees feel cared for, they’re 60% more likely to remain at a company for three or more years. These same employees are “90% more likely to suggest their company as an exceptional place to work” to others.

How to support grieving employees

To ensure workplaces retain their talent and continue to grow, they need to implement a grief-literate and human-first approach within their organization as to how they can best navigate grief in the workplace.

To navigate, support, and address grief in the workplace, employers need to provide the following necessary support and resources to their leaders and team members:

  • Bereavement leave policy: This policy should provide paid bereavement leave for employees longer than the current allotted time in some countries, for example three days in Canada and based on a manager’s discretion in the US. Employers have an opportunity to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive talent market. This policy would also integrate various religious perspectives to allow for all the diverse funerary practices and ceremonies around the world.
  • Therapeutic support: Employers will also provide ongoing support for grieving employees following a grief event. This can include an increased allotment for their yearly benefits such as therapy, counselling and even massage therapy.
  • Grief training: Organizations need to ensure that their team leaders are provided with grief training. This allows them to best navigate their team’s grief and to have better, human-first conversations with employees.

To ensure your organization has an effective post-covid recovery, a grief literacy approach must be implemented that puts people first and humanizes how people are allowed to navigate grief. How will your workplace choose to address grief with its employees?

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